A Dragon From the Land of Israel?

Stories about dragons usually lead us to dark caves in Europe, but one classic dragon-tale may have its ancient roots right here, in the Land of Israel

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Illustration from Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum, 1749, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

Did you know that at least one dragon can be linked to the ancient Land of Israel? Usually, the mention of dragons evokes scenes of knights in armor and towering castles; in short: European folktales set in European landscapes. The tales generally feature a maiden in distress, a dragon threatening the locals, and a brave knight who comes to the rescue, slays the dragon and saves the maiden as well as the town and its grateful residents. Occasionally, the knight is also rewarded with a great treasure along the way. While there are many such stories in world folklore, one of the most famous in Christian mythology and Western culture is associated with the Land of Israel. Or more precisely, with the city of Lod (Lydda).

There are many versions of the story of Saint George and the Dragon, a classic dragon tale, with some even contradicting each other. It begins with a man named Geórgios (George), born to a Christian family of Greek descent. His father was from the Cappadocia region of modern-day Turkey, and his mother was born in Lod in the Land of Israel, then known as the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. George’s father died when his son was still in his teens, and so the youth and his mother returned to Lod, where he grew up, until he joined the Roman army. Saint George met his end, as did many Christian saints, when he was beheaded by the Romans, who persecuted him for his Christian faith.

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Saint George Slaying the Dragon, Raphael, c. 1506

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon first appeared much later, in the 11th century. Various versions of the story situate the battle with the dragon in Libya or Turkey. But we don’t mind believing the version that places the events in Lod, which is traditionally Saint George’s final resting place. According to the tale, a fearsome dragon terrorizing the region demanded gifts and offerings from the locals as appeasement. According to some accounts, the dragon lived in a lake or swamp, and had the power to poison the water sources. Its hunger was insatiable, and every day the villagers provided it with two sheep. When they had exhausted the supply of farm animals, they turned to human offerings. This continued until one day, the beloved local princess was chosen as the dragon’s next victim. Although her father the king offered all his riches and gold, no one agreed to take her place, quite understandably.

Here is where our hero George enters the story, passing by on his white horse by chance, and armed with his trusty lance which he named “Ascalon”, after the city known as Ashkelon in modern-day Israel. The doomed princess tried to persuade him to flee, but George vowed to stay by her side. When the dragon appeared, he stabbed it with the lance, mortally wounding the great beast. George asked the princess for her sash, which he then used to loop around the dragon’s neck. The dragon was tamed as soon as the sash touched its scales. The princess and the gallant knight then proceeded to march it through the city streets.

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A dragon biting its tail, from Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum, 1749, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel
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Fire-breathing dragon from Elementa Chemiae, by Johannis Conradi Barchusen, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

At this point in the story, the various versions cast George’s character in slightly different lights. According to one version he agreed to kill the dragon on condition that the city’s inhabitants convert to Christianity, which they did. Another tells that he killed the dragon, and then distributed the money he received from the king to the poor. The stunned peasants converted to Christianity. In any case, the miraculous story, alongside George’s military career, made him a very popular figure in Christendom as well as a patron saint of soldiers, archers and cavalry, and an ideal exemplar of the myth of the Christian knight.

He is also the patron saint of England (whose flag bears “The Cross of Saint George”), Georgia, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Greece, the Palestinian Authority, the provinces of Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, the cities of Moscow and Istanbul and many other places. The city of Lod has also commemorated his name, naturally. According to tradition, George’s decapitated head was brought to the city, where it is buried in the Church of St. George the Dragon Slayer. Every year on November 16 (according to the Gregorian calendar), a feast is held in the city of Lod to commemorate the transfer and burial of his head there.

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Detail from a round World Map, 1543. Dragons roam the coast of Libya. Libya was one of the possible locations of the story of Saint George and the Dragon. From La mer des hystoires, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel]
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A sea dragon swims off the coast of the Land of Israel. Map dated 1536, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

And if, on your next visit to Lod, you fail to find any dragons, do not despair! You can find some here at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. We have included a few different specimens from the Library’s holdings throughout this article: dragons that appear on antique maps, dragons in old scientific texts, in illustrated manuscripts and even a three-headed dragon from a book of alchemical secrets. And this is just a small sampling of the many dragons hiding here among the stacks and shelves. Browse through the National Library catalog to find more!

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Illustration of “The Three Heads of the Dragon,” symbolizing three metals which when fused together, according to one alchemical theory, create the Philosopher’s Stone. From “The Crowning of Nature”, a 17th century English manuscript by Johann Conrad Barchusen, the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Golda Meir: A Woman Empowered

Golda Meir, one of the most powerful women in Israel’s history, was the third woman in the 20th century to become a leader of a nation. Though a frequent critic of the feminist movement, Golda herself was the focus of interest and criticism due to her gender. How did she deal with it? Why did she agree to enter a synagogue in Moscow but not in Tel Aviv? And what does this have to do with the Israeli Hatmakers’ Union?

Golda Meir, 1949, the Beno Rothenberg Archive, the Meitar Collection

On March 17, 1969, something momentous happened in Israel: Golda Meir was appointed Prime Minister. She became the first woman in Israeli history to lead the country and only the third in woman to head a national government in the 20th century, preceded by Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka) and Indira Gandhi (India). The appointment of a woman as Prime Minister of Israel, a young, embattled country, only two years after the Six-Day War, was not self-evident; however, the chain of political events following the death of her predecessor Levi Eshkol led to Meir’s appointment, who was preferred over such figures as Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan and Pinchas Sapir.

Only the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party officially opposed Golda’s appointment, with the head of the faction, Yitzhak-Meir Levin, expressing concern that the appointment of a woman as Prime Minister would harm Israeli deterrence. Other than this, there was no other official or public grievance against Golda’s appointment. Meir, despite her image and role, was herself critical of the feminist movement, though she often spoke out as a woman. Nevertheless, the fact of her being the Prime Minister of the State of Israel was a subject of great interest, drawing both outright and hinted criticism.

Golda Meir and her new government, 1969. Photo: the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Separation of Religion and State?

Golda Meir had a complex relationship with religion, dating back to long before her term as Prime Minister. During an official visit to Moscow in 1949 as Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Golda visited the famous Moscow Choral Synagogue. Photos of the visit were published in Israel and around the world, and upon her return to Israel, Member of Knesset Benjamin Mintz challenged her to pay a similar visit to a synagogue in Tel Aviv, saying “I invite you to the Great Synagogue for a prayer of thanksgiving. Or do you only visit synagogues in Moscow?” Without skipping a beat, Meir clarified that she had entered the synagogue in Moscow and agreed to sit in the women’s section because she wanted to meet the local Jews. But that as far as Tel Aviv was concerned, she would be happy to attend synagogue as soon as equality was achieved and she was allowed to sit in the main hall alongside the male members of the congregation.

“When Will Golda Myerson Attend Synagogue?” reads the headline of this Hebrew article reporting on Meir’s exchange with MK Benjamin Mintz, Maariv, May 4, 1949

Already in the early 1950s, Golda was seen as a possible candidate for the role of mayor of Tel Aviv, which sparked a discussion over a woman’s ability to serve in such a senior position; a widespread, lively debate on the subject was conducted in the media. Miriam Shir wrote in her column titled “What Say You, Woman?” in the Hebrew daily Davar: “We all need you, Golda Myerson, as “the ‘Head Homemaker’ for the city of Tel Aviv.”

Columnist Miriam Shir supported Golda Meir for the role of mayor of Tel Aviv, Davar, July 26, 1955

After taking office as Prime Minister, senior rabbis in the country expressed differing views on her appointment. The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isser Yehuda Unterman, when asked his opinion on the subject, refused to comment, explaining that as long as officials did not seek his opinion on the matter, there was no reason for him to offer one. Israel Prize winner and head of the Chabad religious court, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, chose to publicly declare his negative opinion, basing his opposition on Maimonides’ Hilkhot Melakhim. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Nissim stated that there was no problem with the appointment, while Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, was in no hurry to give his opinion, saying only that the matter needed to be studied in detail first.

 

The Case of the Hat

On Israeli Independence Day in 1973, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel, the IDF held its last military parade. It was decided to permanently cancel the custom due to high costs, and this was to be the last hurrah, held in the presence of the Prime Minister who sat on the dais. Shortly after the parade, the Israeli Hatmakers’ Union (it turns out there was such a thing) published an official letter of grievance in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek Maariv article dedicated to the Prime Minister’s sloppy appearance, and the fact that she chose not to wear a hat during the parade. “Mrs. Meir’s bear head, exposed to the sun, served as a negative example to all Israeli women,” the union members wrote, demanding that Meir become a fashion leader and help promote the fashion of hats among Israeli women. The union members even offered to create a special hat model named for Golda, whose sale would compensate for the economic fallout they predicted would be caused by her appearance, which they feared would lead Israeli women to forego hats altogether.

Mrs. Meir’s bear head, exposed to the sun, served as a negative example to all Israeli women” wrote the Israeli Hatmakers’ Union in Maariv, May 9, 1973

Would a male prime minister also have been criticized for his lack of fashion sense?

After the national trauma caused by the Yom Kippur War which broke out later that year, and despite the fact that the Agranat Commission did not find her directly guilty, Golda was blamed for the outcome. She eventually resigned from her role as Prime Minister in 1974.

Prime Minister Gold Meir resigns. April, 1974. Photo: the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Golda Meir became famous in Israel and around the world for shattering a glass ceiling as well as for her lengthy political career. In Israel, her legacy and image, while very well known, are sometimes the subject of controversy, linked mainly to the outcome of the Yom Kippur War and the complacency that had preceded it. Outside of Israel, however, Golda was the subject of great admiration and respect, even during her lifetime. She was named “Most Admired Woman” by a Gallup poll in both 1973 (when she received twice as many votes as First Lady Pat Nixon) and 1974. After her death, New York City named a square after her and a Hollywood movie, A Woman Called Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman, was made about her life.

Recently, it seems that the historical figure of Golda Meir is experiencing something of a revival. Last month it was announced that the Oscar-winning Israeli director Guy Nativ is working on a new film about Meir, who will be played by award-winning actress Helen Mirren. Another project currently taking shape is a television series about the Israeli leader produced by Barbara Streisand and starring actress Shira Haas. The series, titled Lioness and based on Francine Klagsbrun’s biography of Golda Meir, will focus on the former Israeli Prime Minister’s role during the Yom Kippur War.

On the National Library of Israel’s various online platforms, Golda Meir is more frequently searched in English than in Hebrew. It is clear that her past in Israel is perceived differently than in the rest of the world, but as she herself said, “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”

Ilan Ramon, Israel’s 1st Astronaut, and the Meaning of Life

Long before he became the first Israeli to be launched into space, Ilan Ramon, as a 23-year-old fighter pilot, asked Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz did his best to answer

Distinguished Professor!

I have long struggled with many strange questions that can perhaps be gathered under the heading: What is man’s purpose in this world? And the more questions that are asked, the greater the contradictions and ambiguities.

I am a young man—23 years old. I turn to you—an older person with such rich knowledge and experience, whose opinion is so important to me—I turn to you and ask:

How do you see the world we live in?

How do you explain the essence of life?

How do you view man’s purpose and goal in life?

And how is a man to achieve this purpose?

And you, honorable Professor, looking back, do you think that you have achieved the goals or purpose placed before you?

Dear Professor, I know how limited your time is and [that it is] devoted to important matters, and yet I would be very grateful if you could address my questions and perhaps enlighten me on life’s dark path.

With respect,

Ilan Ramon

Ilan Ramon’s Hebrew letter to Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Yeshayahu Leibowitz Archive, the National Library of Israel

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The young Israeli Air Force pilot Ilan Ramon sent the above letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz in 1977.

Five days later, Leibowitz sent his reply:

Dear Ilan Ramon,

Your question “How do you see the world we live in?” is not clear to me.  What does “see the world” mean? Do you mean cosmologically, physically, metaphysically or…?

In your question, “How do you explain the essence of life?”—I do not know what you mean by the words “essence of life.” Do you mean biological, psychological, historical or…?

Regarding your question about “man’s purpose and goal in life”—there is no objective answer. In Pirkei Avot the sages say: “Against your will you were created, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die”—and to these words, there is nothing more to add.

Man exists without having decided to be created or to be born or to live—he has no choice but to make a subjective decision about his goal and purpose in life—and there are countless possible decisions:

There are those who will find their own life to have no value, nor will they find any value in anything within that life—and they will commit suicide.

There are those who will see value and purpose in maximizing pleasure for themselves (material or sexual, or aesthetic, and so forth) all the days of their life.

There are those who will see value and purpose in acquiring knowledge—and will dedicate their lives to this.

There are those who will see value and purpose in helping their fellow man—and will dedicate their lives to this.

There are those who will see value and purpose in the service of their people and country—and will dedicate their lives to this.

There are those who will see value and purpose in serving God—and will dedicate their lives to this.

None of these decisions can be objectively justified, and every person—you and I included—must make their own decision.

Very truly yours,

Yeshayahu Leibowitz

ליבוביץ משיב לאילן רמון. ארכיון ישעיהו ליבוביץ בספרייה הלאומית
Leibowitz responds to Ilan Ramon. The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Archive, the National Library of Israel

On January 16th, 2003, more than 25 years after writing the letter above, Colonel Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli to enter space, aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia. Ramon and the rest of the seven-person crew perished only a few days later, on February 1st of that year, when the Columbia disintegrated upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

The Bizarre True Story of Israel’s First Government

It met in a movie theater, had a really weird assassination attempt, was led by a shockingly diverse coalition, and ended in resignation...

David Ben-Gurion chatting in the Knesset cafeteria, 1949 (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

About an hour before the first meeting of Israel’s inaugural government on February 14, 1949, David Ben-Gurion entered the Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem. He went after promising a prominent religious Zionist rabbi that he would do so.

It was the first time the Jewish state’s secular founding father had been in a synagogue in the Land of Israel during prayers. He’d already lived in the Land for some forty years.

This uncharacteristic and incongruous event was perhaps a portent of things to come in Israel’s strange, and – in some ways – trendsetting first national government.

 

Voting for something else

The elections for Israel’s First Knesset in 1949 boasted the country’s highest ever voter turnout (some 87% of eligible voters).

Yet the roughly 440,000 people who voted were not voting for the Knesset at all!

They were voting for the “Constituent Assembly”, a body intended to create a constitution for the young Jewish state, not necessarily govern it.

Polling station in Abu Gosh during the Constituent Assembly elections, 1949 (Photo: Keren Hayesod). From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Two days after their first meeting, a proposal led by David Ben-Gurion was passed and the “Constituent Assembly” became known as the “Knesset”.

To this day, Israel does not have a constitution.

 

The secular, socialist, ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist, Sephardic-Oriental, liberal, Arab coalition

The two biggest winners in the election, Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party and Meir Yaari’s Mapam Party, were both left-wing and secular, yet Ben-Gurion refused to include Mapam in his coalition, preferring the inclusion of four smaller parties presenting a rather diverse and seemingly bizarre group of Haredim, Religious Zionists, Sephardic Jews, liberal secularists and Arabs…

Ben-Gurion, though, of course had his reasons for choosing these partners. It was important to him that parties representing divergent constituencies – especially more established and traditional communities – also be part of the country’s first government, in order to provide it with broader legitimacy and support, rather than simply rely upon mainstream secular Zionists.

The largest party in the coalition besides Mapai was the United Religious Front, comprised of four religious parties spanning the gamut from the historically anti-Zionist (and later non-Zionist) Haredi Agudat Yisrael and Poalei Agudat Yisrael parties to the fervently religious Zionist Mizrachi and Hapoel Hamizrachi parties.

The United Religious Front won 16 seats and to this day is the broadest religious party to run in a Knesset (or in this case, Constituent Assembly) election.

First vote of the Constituent Assembly, 14 February 1949 (Photo: Marlin Levin). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The party known as “Sephardim and Oriental Communities” also joined Ben-Gurion, with the goal of promoting the interests of its eponymous constituency in the new state. The Progressive Party joined, as well. Though not socialist like Mapai, it was also largely representative of secular Ashkenazic Jews.

The smallest party in the coalition, with two seats, was the Democratic List of Nazareth, led by two Arabs from the Galilean city: Seif el-Din el-Zoubi, who had fought in the Haganah, and Amin-Salim Jarjora, a respected educator and jurist. The Democratic List of Nazareth was aligned with Mapai, part of Ben-Gurion’s efforts to show that Jews and Arabs could coexist in the new State of Israel.

 

“Living in a movie”

A popular Hebrew expression meaning “to live in a movie” is often used to describe an improbable, unrealistic or unbelievable person, event or situation.

If the circumstances around the establishment of the “First Knesset” or its composition were not enough to employ this expression, then the setting of its meetings certainly could be, because the first Israeli government met in a movie theater.

Yes, a movie theater…. and one named the “Magic Cinema” no less.

When it opened in 1945, the Kesem (“Magic” in Hebrew) Cinema in Tel Aviv was the city’s most luxurious, boasting more than 1,100 upholstered seats and screening the international blockbusters of its day.

The Knesset building, formerly the Kesem Cinema in Tel Aviv, 1949 (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Interior of the Knesset building, formerly the Kesem Cinema in Tel Aviv, 1949 (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The structure’s life as a cinema, however, was short-lived.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Kesem was repurposed to serve as headquarters for the Israeli Navy.

In 1949, it became the Parliament building, as the Knesset met there for most of its inaugural year. While it may seem strange for a national legislative body to meet in a movie theater, given the dearth of large assembly halls and the fact that Kesem was relatively new, spacious and centrally located, it actually made a lot of sense for the “Magic Cinema” to host the First Knesset.

In addition to on-going Knesset meetings, Kesem was also the site of a bizarre, nearly successful attempt to assassinate David Ben-Gurion by a deranged kibbutznik shepherd who simply walked into the cinema building with an automatic weapon and a suitcase of pamphlets he had printed outlining his plans to bring world peace.

A policeman with the failed assassin’s suitcase and gun, published in Maariv, 13 September 1949. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Though he claimed that he wanted to commit suicide in the Knesset in order to bring attention to his plan, some contemporary reports recounted that the would-be assassin yelled, “I will kill Ben-Gurion!”, after being tackled to the ground.

 

The end

Israel’s first government didn’t last much longer after that – ending rather abruptly (and absurdly) when Ben-Gurion resigned on October 15, 1950.

The reason?

He wanted to name a new Minister of Commerce and Industry, and according to the rules at the time, appointment of a new minister required that the entire government resign…

That rule was soon fixed, but the next few governments led by Ben-Gurion didn’t last long either. He resigned again in early 1951, yet again in 1952 and once more the following year.

David Ben-Gurion on the first day of the Constituent Assembly, 14 February 1949 (Photo: Marlin Levin). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The importance of establishing an initial functional government – no matter how short-lived – cannot be understated. Ben-Gurion and his diverse political allies deserve significant credit for that.

In many respects, that rather strange first government also set the stage for the country’s political landscape to “live in a movie” ever since.